Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2011, still from a color film in 16 mm, 45 minutes.


ONE TYPICAL SUNDAY at Migrating Forms, the annual ten-day marathon of film and video at Anthology Film Archives, offered screenings of the following: Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth, Not the Moon (2011), a patient study of everyday life on the mid-Atlantic island of Corvo; Madison Brookshire and Tashi Wada’s Passage (2012), an abstract film with two simultaneous projections overlapping to create shifting fields of color; and Fritz Lang’s big-budget Indian Epic (1959), a thoroughly unhinged Teutonic fantasy of the Orient.

Curators Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry describe Migrating Forms, now in its fourth year, simply as a “festival of new film and video,” vague parameters that allow for expansive programming. While primarily dedicated to showcasing aesthetically ambitious, unconventional work, the 2012 festival also blurred hard distinctions between commercial movies and avant-garde experiments—as Indian Epic attests, even the definition of “new” is flexible.

This is not to say that Migrating Forms is an exercise in scattershot pluralism. Contained within the festival’s name is a subtle thesis about the sprawling nature of contemporary cinema. With work by more than fifty artists from some dozen countries, the festival’s international scope implies migration. But many of the most exciting films screened this year also move freely across institutional borders on itineraries that intersect with the global art world as much as the international film festival circuit. What makes Migrating Forms so relevant is its sensitivity to the fact that a specialized theater in the East Village may be just one possible site for works that can also exist as multichannel gallery installations, YouTube videos, or components of a performance.

Amie Siegel’s Black Moon (2010) is emblematic of this kind of migration. The twenty-minute video follows a band of armed female guerrillas wandering through a postapocalyptic landscape of foreclosed suburban homes. After the screening, Siegel projected still photographs of the work as she had recently installed it in a gallery alongside other related videos and images. When viewed in its entirety, a loose narrative develops over the course of Black Moon, but it’s easy to imagine how the striking visuals and roughly episodic structure could appeal to the ambulatory museum viewer, who might catch only a five-minute glimpse of the financial crisis figured as a battleground.

As museums and galleries continue to embrace film and video—and artists shape their work for those contexts—institutions like Anthology remain, as always, on the margins. Yet Killian and McGarry have also recognized how the unique context of their venue can serve to aggregate an otherwise fragmented field. In a nod to auteurist comradery, Migrating Forms’ printed programs identified all festival contributors, from the late Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz to Jacob Ciocci of Paper Rad, as “directors.” Documentaries, experimental narratives, and Ciocci’s Internet-inspired freak-outs, all found a place in Anthology’s Maya Deren Theater, where they could be viewed together as part of a shared cinematic culture.

In fact, glimmers of a common discourse did emerge amid the festival’s diversity. No fewer than three feature films, for instance, dealt with the 1970s militant group the Japanese Red Army. Naeem Mohaiemen’s The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2012)—a festival highlight—investigated negotiations between Bangledeshi authorities and JRA commandos who landed a hijacked plane in Dhaka in 1977. More broadly, Mohaiemen’s film considered the power of utopian thinking—and its failures, a theme that recurred in several other works. Likewise, Ben Rivers’s beautifully shot Slow Action (2010) is structured like a catalogue of fantastic utopian communities in various states of decline—imagine Italo Calvino and Robert Smithson teaming up on a science fiction movie produced by Semiotext(e). Redmond Entwistle’s Walk-Through (2012) examined more prosaic utopian impulses in the radical pedagogy of Michael Asher’s post-studio class at CalArts in the late ’70s.

Get Adobe Flash player
play
Full screen available while playing

Fritz Lang, The Indian Tomb, 1959. Debra Paget.

There may be a hint of something utopian about Migrating Forms as well: How else to account for the huge amounts of labor and energy expended for the relatively small audiences the festival draws? Migrating Forms’ mission seems less aimed at bringing challenging film and video to a “wider public” than at cross-pollinating specialist audiences that, while operating in adjacent cultural spheres, are often largely isolated from one another. Indeed, all of the works benefited from the special economy of attention that the cinema facilitates: The practice of coming together as an audience, wedging into theater seats, and watching something difficult with full attention is an experience that cannot be replicated in the white cube or on a screen littered with browser windows. The possibility of such a public experience, even if the public is limited, justifies all the effort. Well, that, and Debra Paget’s cobra dance from Lang’s Indian Epic.

William Smith

Migrating Forms ran May 11–20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.